The Digital Generation?

President Obama had a good week.   He grabbed the headlines by having the state of Hawaii take the extraordinary step of releasing the state “long form” version of his birth certificate, making the ‘birthers’ look petty.   At the Correspondent’s dinner he and Seth Meyers skewered Donald Trump who made things worse for himself by showing no humor, sitting stone faced, apparently stewing over all the ridicule.   Besides revealing a dark side of Trump’s personality (people who can’t laugh at themselves are almost never good people), he demonstrated that for all his bravado, he knew he’d been, well, trumped.   Then on Sunday night the real news of the week came:  The United States had killed Osama bin Laden.

I will post more on my thoughts and reactions to this, and what it means to the Mideast.   I need some time to mull that over and read more about the operation and the world reaction.    Today I’ll just describe what I did in class and reflect on student reactions.

In World Politics we were going to cover the International Court of Justice, ICC, and the sources of international law.  I had a power point ready and five minutes before class I was going over notes.   I then checked the news and found more detail on Bin Laden’s death.   As I got up for class I impulsively left my computer in my office and instead grabbed an old VHS tape from 9-11-01.

I taped this from my television back on that September day.  I had just gotten done watching a history channel show about Apollo 13 and was going to start working.  I was on a research sabbatical that semester, so I didn’t have class.   I flipped to CNN to check the Dow futures and saw that a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center buildings.   “Holy shit,” I exclaimed, and as quickly as possible put a tape in the VCR.   I subsequently captured the second plane hitting, the collapse of the buildings, and much of the rest of the day’s action.    I saw initial reports on the Pentagon being hit and the towers collapse as I was doing a step machine work out (I think that 70 minute work out is still my longest on my step machine!)   At that point I was getting local New York television on Dishnet, so I was able to follow how they covered the story — it was far more personal than the “national” coverage.

I showed sections of that tape to my students today.   The initial reports, the confusion (false stories like a fire on the mall, a car bomb at the state department, a helicopter circling the Pentagon right before the explosion), and the emotion of the commentators was something they’d not experienced.   Most students had been only about eight or nine when it happened.   Watching it brought me back to that day: Peter Jennings in shocked disbelief when the first tower fell.   New York commentators groping for words through emotion after the second fell.   When one said “If there are any young children watching this, I…I…I don’t know what to advise you” the class broke up laughing.

The students did not seem all that upset watching it; it’s an historical fact they’ve grown up with, after all.  Their reactions to Bin Laden’s death were also lacking passion.   They debated whether or not it was legal, a few said they couldn’t celebrate a death, and others said their first reaction was “well, Obama’s got 2012 wrapped up.”

On blogs and facebook friends have expressed thrill and being over joyed by the news.    A few others throw out a bitter “so what, is this worth ten years of destruction?”   Most students remain dispassionate, discussing policy implications and more vocally questioning the importance of the action.   They correctly note that al qaeda is a lot more than “one man.”   Many thought celebrating this paralleled celebrations in some parts of the Arab world on 9-11.

I had been a bit surprised by the lack of passion in my class — was this just because it was something they just grew up accepting as part of history?   People had quietly chuckled at the “I don’t know what to advise you” comment those rare times I’ve shown this video before, never has there been a loud outburst!

The generation of students now in college are the first to grow up completely in the digital age.   The internet and e-mail were commonplace when they were three years old, CDs were becoming obsolete by the time they hit middle school — and many of them already had cell phones by that time.   Could it be that information-age children are becoming more dispassionate yet nonetheless thoughtful adults?

There are other explanations.   Mainers tend to be relatively even keeled, and students are a unique demographic.   We have a good mix of “conservatives” and “liberals,” and the two groups get along well together (that’s also not atypical for Maine).    And, of course, there are a lot of people who diss the new generation — they don’t focus on things for long periods of time, or don’t appreciate literature, preferring tweets and factoids instead.   Yet having seen how student “personalities” shift slowly over time (there isn’t really a cut off point between ‘generations’) I find myself rather optimistic about the new generation.

It’s not so much that they are dispassionate, but that they are savvy about how to handle information.   I see this on facebook debates (one reason I’m one of those faculty who accept student facebook friends is that it’s a window to how this generation thinks).   They seem less likely to give in to emotional reaction/over-reaction, and more likely to look at various perspectives of an issue.   They tend to be more relativistic in their world view than I would be, but that also translates to more tolerance.   I feel they can handle really intense emotional issues without giving in to the anger and passion that often exemplifies my generation.   Even issues like abortion seem a bit easier for them to deal with.

It’ll be fascinating to watch how the true digital generation — people who have been on line essentially from birth — turns out.  I am optimistic.

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  1. #1 by modestypress on May 3, 2011 - 01:39

    How did the future sneak up on us? Why it was just yesterday when I was at a community college class and I learned that John F. Kennedy (or was it Abraham Lincoln) had been assassinated.

  2. #2 by brucetheeconomist on May 6, 2011 - 21:02

    You capture pretty well the uncertaintly and fear of 9/11. People that first few hours had no idea just how big the plot might be: would there be some action of the west coast or the center of the country for example. I’m certainly glad that OBL is gone, but I think my reaction would have been stronger had it been done in the first 5 years after the attack.

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